With the fitness market already sold on the value of wearables, smartwatches are increasingly expanding their focus into the complementary world of health.
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One of my first forays into the merging of technology and individual fitness was a Nike + iPod Sport Kit, circa 2006. A step up from my Timex Sport Watch, the Sport Kit featured a small sensor that fit in my shoe and a receiver that plugged into my iPod Nano. The duo tracked my runs in distance, speed and calories burned, with real-time feedback delivered via headphones. Considered state of the art back in the day, the accompanying Nike Run app archived my statistics for later viewing, replacing the old pen-and-paper running diary with lots of cool graphs and data.
Sixteen years later, the sensor and iPod have long been phased out and replaced with an Apple Watch that collects a plethora of workout stats from all my favourite activities. It detects what stroke I’m swimming, the average number of strokes I take per length of the pool, how many steps I take per day, how long I’ve been sitting, my VO2 max (average and per workout), heart rate variability (the length of time between heartbeats), blood oxygen levels, step length, walking steadiness, speed and asymmetry, and how fast I climb and descend the stairs.
With this wealth of data, I’m given personalized insights into how my stats measure up against healthy norms, and customized messages if my exercise habits change. The watch also provides my favourite playlists and does a pretty good job of telling the time.
According to Statistica, smartwatches are on the wrists of 216 million people worldwide. Wearable technology made the top three in the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual list of fitness trends from 2016 to 2022, and reached No. 1 in five of those years. The Apple Watch leads the market share, but Fitbit, Garmin and Polar have their own models, each with an array of features.
With the fitness market already sold on the value of wearables, smartwatches are increasingly expanding their focus into the complementary world of health. Equipped with sensors, the Apple Watch can take a single lead ECG (electrocardiogram), notify its user of unusually high or low heart rates and irregular rhythms, monitor blood oxygen and respiratory rates and detect a sudden fall, sending notices to an emergency contact should the fall leave the user incapacitated. And with a variety of companion apps and its own Health app, it can track and log sleep patterns and menstrual and fertility cycles, set up a medication schedule and reminders, and store medical records including immunizations, allergies and lab results.
With most of us carrying and wearing our devices every day, the data collected by the combination of a smartphone and smartwatch offers a look at our habits, without the subjective filter of self-reporting. This is huge when it comes to decisions regarding health. Apple reports that more than 150 types of health data can be collected, including the number of minutes and hours we sleep, sit and move, and how our heart and lungs respond to our daily lifestyle.
But this data isn’t just actionable on a personal level. Smartwatch users can choose to share their health info and insights with their health-care providers as well as family members, which can spark meaningful conversations and provide peace of mind among relatives.
“The idea really is how do we provide a continuous-style monitoring of patients in a relatively unobtrusive way that will allow us to detect a change in a patient status before they end up actually coming to the hospital,” said Heather Ross, head of the cardiology division at the University Health Network’s Peter Munk Cardiac Centre in Toronto, in a report issued by Apple.
On a larger scale, the capacity for data collected by our devices to advance research into health conditions is remarkable. With the user’s permission, Apple allows the secure sharing of health and exercise data with the research community through its Research app, a practice that has resulted in several impactful studies on women’s health, heart health, mobility and mental health. And while not all wearable devices have the same attention to privacy or the ability to filter what personal information is shared, the potential to use this large-scale collection of health and fitness data from tens of millions of users worldwide to support advances in science is exciting.
Fitbit and the activity app Strava review the vast amount of data compiled by their users to present an annual review of exercise trends worldwide. Not only is it interesting to get accurate data on how much we move and sleep, it offers a better understanding of the health and fitness habits of diverse communities around the globe. That’s quite an evolution from the early days of wearables, when we got pretty excited about the real-time tracking of how many steps we took during the day — not to mention a huge advancement from a shoe sensor that wouldn’t stay put and didn’t like puddles and slush.
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